Monday, September 28, 2009

Moctezuma: When one civilisation deserves its bloody nose from another

The Aztecs' taste for killing presents a powerful case for colonialism, says Boris Johnson

Of course, it was a tragedy. Never in history has there been such a clash of civilisations. Never has there been a conflict as unfair as the fight between the Aztecs and the Spanish conquistadors, and it is hard not to see Moctezuma as the victim. What hope did he have against the Castilian aggressors, with their greed, their trickery and their superior military technology?

He stands for every glorious and primitive monarch who has ever been overwhelmed by the white man. He is like Boudicca, crushed by the legions; or Cetewayo, his impis mown down by the Maxim gun; or Sitting Bull, his braves slaughtered by the US cavalry – except Moctezuma was far more glorious and more tragic than them all.

When Moctezuma ate, four beautiful women would appear to wash his hands before passing him a bowl of foaming chocolate. When Moctezuma received visitors, they were obliged to enter barefoot and dressed in sacking, and to avert their eyes so religiously that no one was even sure what he looked like. When the king wanted to hunt, birds were discreetly ushered past his palace window, so that he could have a pop at them with his blowpipe. When Moctezuma pricked his ears with a needle, his people seriously believed that the trickle of blood would help the crops to grow.

Adorned with gold and the feathers of tropical birds, he ruled the most powerful and opulent civilisation of the Americas. He was the elected and unchallenged master of a city of 200,000, a place of ancient temples and fantastic statuary, set dreamlike on an island in a vast lake fringed by snow-capped volcanoes. So when, in 1519, he looked into his black polished obsidian mirror and saw – so it was said later – strange men riding on deer, he was completely unprepared for the shock that fate had in store.

It wasn't just that the Aztecs were amazed to see the Spanish ships. They had never seen a horse before, let alone metal armour. As for the guns of Hernán Cortés and his army, what a terrifying contrast their explosions made with the most sophisticated weapon the Aztecs could deploy – a kind of wooden thwacker with stone teeth embedded down the edge. It was a clash between the Stone Age and the age of gunpowder, except that to call the Aztecs a Stone Age culture is mildly insulting to the Stone Age. It is an astonishing fact that in the early 16th century – when our Henry VIII was on the throne – they hadn't even invented the wheel, let alone writing.

In two short years, much of the Aztec nobility had been slaughtered, and Moctezuma was dead, either at the hands of his own disappointed people, or else bumped off by Cortés as soon as he ceased to be useful. European diseases ravaged the native population, which fell by as much as 80 per cent. It was a catastrophe, wasn't it?

Well, if you want to see the other side of the story, and you want to meditate on at least one powerful argument for colonialism and imperialism, you must go to the British Museum, where they have just opened a magnificent exhibition of the life of Moctezuma. There, you are invited to imagine what it was like to attend the inauguration of the latest expansion of the Great Temple, in 1506, not long before the arrival of the white man.

Suppose you were one of the thousands of prisoners captured by the regiments of Moctezuma – the jaguars or the hummingbirds – in one of their endless predatory wars on neighbouring villages. You would be daubed with paint and given some kind of narcotic and then you would be led – either chanting or dreamily protesting – into the centre of town.

First, you would file past the tzompantli, the huge racks of skulls, and then towards the reeking steps of the Templo Mayor. You would be led up the steps, slippery with blood, and at the top one priest would grab you by the hair, and four others would grab each limb. Then in an instant they would flip you expertly backwards on to the sacrificial block, and though your back would be very likely broken by the impact, the last sight to delight your eyes, before you lost all brain-stem function, would have been your own still beating heart, held aloft by the priest as the snows of Popocatepetl turned pink in the evening sun.

It has been estimated that 20,000 healthy young people died that day, their hearts yanked out at dizzying speeds by the obsidian knives, their bodies flung down the steps to be cut up for various cannibalistic procedures. So it went on, year in, year out, with human beings killed partly for religious reasons (to persuade the sun to come up in the morning), but also to create the climate of fear that was politically necessary: to terrorise the enemies of Moctezuma and to instil discipline in the people.

When Cortés arrived in Tenochtitlan, he came upon Golgotha. It was worse than the final scene of Apocalypse Now, where the heads of Marlon Brando's victims are to be seen on the temple steps. It was more appalling than the most lurid imaginings of Jake and Dinos Chapman. Cortés and his conquistadors may have been brutal, and they may have been ruthless in their betrayal and possible murder of Moctezuma. But they were in the same moral position as the liberators of Belsen. They had stumbled on a culture gone mad, and incapable of telling what we would call right from what we would call wrong.

Of course, you may disagree. You may think it makes no sense to impose such value judgments on the Aztecs. If so, go to the British Museum. Look at the glories of Aztec culture. Then look at the knives, the skulls, the hideous basins in which they plopped the thousands of thudding hearts. Work it out for yourself. And if you find your brain churning with the evidence assembled, and buzzing with the question of when and whether it is right for one culture to impose itself on another, then why not fork out a fiver – entirely voluntarily – for one of the greatest museums on earth?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Fungus-treated violin beats Strad in blind test

A researcher has put a newly developed, fungally treated violin in a blind contest against one made in 1711 by the most famed violin maker of history -- and the newer fiddle won. The event took place Sept. 1 at an annual conference on forest husbandry, the Osnabruecker Baumpflegetagen, in Osnabrueck, Germany.

Scientist Francis Schwarze of EMPA, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research, developed the new violin by treating it with specially selected fungus, which he says improves the sound quality by making the wood lighter and more uniform.

In the test, the British star violinist Matthew Trusler played five different instruments behind a curtain, so that the audience didn't know which was being played. One of the violins Trusler played was his own "Strad," or instrument made by the most storied violin maker of history, Antonio Stradivari, in Italy in the 18th century. The other four were all made by Swiss violin maker Michael Rhonheimer -- two with Schwarze's fungally-treated wood, the other two with untreated wood.

A jury of experts, together with the conference participants, judged the tone quality of the violins. Of the more than 180 attendees, almost half, or 90, felt the tone of a fungally treated violin dubbed "Opus 58" the best. The Strad reached second place with 39 votes, but 113 members of the audience thought that "Opus 58" was actually the Strad. "Opus 58" was the one made from wood that had been treated with fungus for the longest time, nine months, Schwarze said.

Stradivarius violins are regarded as being of unparalleled quality even today, commanding prices in the millions. Stradivari himself knew little of woodattacking fungi, but Schwarze claims the master received inadvertent help from a "Little Ice Age" which occurred from 1645 to 1715. During this period Central Europe suffered long winters and cool summers which caused trees to grow slowly and uniformly creating ideal conditions for the fungus to attack. For the new violins, Schwarze uses Norwegian spruce wood treated with the fungus Physiporinus vitrius and sycamore treated with Xylaria longipes.

The result means that "in the future even talented young musicians will be able to afford a violin with the same tonal quality as an impossibly expensive Stradivarius," said Horst Heger of the Osnabrueck City Conservatory.

Schwarze said the new instruments would probably run about $25,000. "Compared to a conventional instrument, a violin made of wood treated with the fungus has a warmer, more rounded sound," he added.


Neanderthals - the hairy carnivore that ate our ancestors

NEANDERTHAL man was not the hirsute simpleton history books have been portraying, an independent Sydney scholar believes. Neanderthal man was a vicious rapist and cannibal – and ugly too.

After years of research in which he scrutinised 800 references, Danny Vendramini has concluded Neanderthals were "apex predators" and were "aggressive, powerful and terrifying carnivores". For more than 50,000 years they ruled the food chain. Much of their diet consisted of our ancestors. "Their daily diet was nearly 2kg of meat – and it included human meat," Mr Vendramini said.

The former filmmaker has written Them and Us: How Neanderthal predation created modern humans (Kardoorair Press, $39.95), wherein he promulgates his findings of the way in which "Neanderthal predation" almost wiped out the early human populations of the Mediterranean levant.

Self-taught Mr Vendramini said he was aware that his book could offend some scientists. "Scientists have taken the view that they were more human-like but I think that is anthropomorphic thinking which sees them as like ourselves and disregards the evidence that they were cannibals," he said. Bone relics at about eight European sites showed neatly-dissected human bones, cast away among the bones of other fare, he said.

The average Eurasian Neanderthal was about 25 per cent heavier than a human with lots of muscle, barrel chests, "arms like Arnold Schwarzenegger and legs like telegraph posts". They were about six-times stronger than modern humans.

"They were primates and they would have looked like primates," Mr Vendramini said. Adapting in ice-age Europe, they required a high-protein diet. Isotope analysis of Neanderthal bone collagen indicated a diet of 97 per cent meat.

Mr Vendramini said he had to speculate on many of the interactions described in the book as there was no evidence of emotion or psychology. There was evidence, however, of weapons in the form of flint-tipped spears and hunting in packs.

And, they were responsible for reducing the humanoid population to as few as 50 in the Mediterranean levant region. Cro-Magnon man fought back, killing and also eating Neanderthals and migrating across the world in what Mr Vendramini called "a 20,000km blitzkrieg," and "the first instance of evolution by genocide". He speculated the traumas of those distant human experiences at the hands of Eurasian Neanderthals underpinned some of the ways in which modern humans have evolved.

SA Museum palaeontologist Ben McHenry described the book as "a thought provoking outside-the-square theory which may or may not ruffle the feathers of the scientific establishment".

Flinders School of Biological Sciences' Dr Gavin Prideaux said it was: "A fascinating and thought-provoking idea; the perfect basis for an epic Hollywood blockbuster."


One biologist is very scathing about the theory.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Oberammergau's Passion Play: Still passionate after 375 years

Every 10 years, more than 2,000 people from the Bavarian village of Oberammergau get involved in a centuries-old Biblical play. Oberammergau's Passion Play was first performed in 1634. Once the season starts in May, there are five performances each week until October

"Jesus is my best friend. We once shared a room in Jerusalem," Carsten Lück says with a grin. His thick head of hair, moustache and beard give him a Biblical look – and so it should. Lück is one of 1,000 actors preparing for the 2010 Oberammergau Passion Play. "Judas has the most demanding part. I try to show that he really was Jesus's best friend before betraying him."

In real life, Lück is good friends with "Jesus"; after all, they grew up together in this village, an hour south of Munich. As I stroll down the main street, cast members are easy to spot as they go about their everyday jobs: bearded waiters and postmen, mustachioed shopkeepers and hoteliers. No wigs or false beards are worn on stage, so men start growing their hair 15 months before opening night. Policemen have special dispensation to abandon their "clean shaven" rule. After all, as I am told, the Passion Play is older than the constabulary.

Oberammergau's Passion Play was first performed in 1634. Threatened by the plague, the villagers vowed to put on a play about the "Suffering, Death and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ" every 10 years. They survived and have kept their promise ever since.

And it is still a communal effort. On a backstage tour of the 4,800-seat Passion Play Theatre, our guide Maria explains that: "Only those who were born or have lived in Oberammergau for 20 years are allowed to take part." Half the population, about 2,500, is involved in acting and playing in the orchestra, set-building and sewing costumes. "The crowd scenes are huge. As many as 900 people are on the open-air stage at one time."

In the dressing rooms, every hook has a name above it – a clutch of Feldmeiers here, a couple of Staneks there. Often four generations of a family take part, from great grandparents to babes-in-arm. "This is Jesus's dressing-room," Maria announces.
"The only one with a sink." That is to wash off the "blood" after the crucifixion. The gore is fake, but everything else is real. The spears and armour for the Roman soldiers are forged at the local smithy and, when I pick up the crown of thorns, its spikes are sharp.

I am impressed. Any thoughts of Ambridge amateurs, under a bossy Lynda Snell, are long gone. Credit for the current professionalism is given to Christian Stückl, who took charge in 1990 and turned enthusiasts into convincing actors. He trained in Oberammergau as a wood carver, but the 48 year-old is now a highly respected director at Munich's Volkstheater.

Tradition shadows everything in Bavaria, but the production is not sacrosanct. There are new costumes and a new set; the 19th-century text, once criticised for being anti-Semitic, has been reworked; and there is more music. The 200-year-old score sounds "like early Schubert or Mendelssohn", conductor and composer Markus Zwink tells me. Created for fewer musicians and singers, it had to be expanded, but Zwink is sensitive to what he can alter. "Some pieces are great; everyone knows and loves them. Those I can't touch."

As in an oratorio, the choir and 60-strong orchestra are an essential part of the production and must also be home-grown. As Zwink points out, the play is a catalyst for talent. "Any child showing potential is given lessons. The village has chamber orchestras, youth orchestras, boys' choirs, girls' choirs."

Oberammergau is no German Brigadoon; in between the once-a-decade Passion Play seasons, the twisting lanes are busy. Tourists come year-round to photograph homes decorated with Lüftlmalerei, literally ''paintings in the air''. Most of these frescoes are religious, with the best known the scene of Christ before Pontius Pilate that decorates the Pilatushaus. Inside this 18th-century building, we watch chips fly as a carver creates an angel from a chunk of lime tree. The Pilatushaus showcases other artists: a coppersmith hammering away at a bangle, a potter painting a vase. All are members of a 50-strong craft co-op that takes turns to demonstrate their skills in the atelier and shop.

Visitors also head up the Laber, a 5,000-feet peak overlooking the village. After a cable-car ride, we stare at the waves of blue-green Bavarian Alps fading south into Austria. Once Carsten Lück gets the new script, he will come here: "I go up the Laber and walk around the mountain shouting my lines. In the end, my dog knows the part of Judas as well as I do."

In the 21st century, the villagers' commitment is admirable, giving up time, work, holidays and money. Rehearsals will continue on the outdoor stage this winter, through wind, rain and snow. Once the season starts in May, there are five performances each week until October. And, although the major speaking roles have two actors for each part, everyone else has to turn up like clockwork. With half the village involved, the other half still has to run the town.

The sole survivor of elaborate works that were once common in Germany and Austria, the Oberammergau Passion Play might seem like an anachronism. But in an age of theme parks and star-studded arts festivals, this determination to honour an ancestral vow is impressive. For the religious, it is something of a pilgrimage; for the secular, the music and drama can be deeply moving. I certainly admire the continuity, handed down from generation to generation. As Markus Zwink tells me: "My father was in four productions, but we Zwinks have taken part for centuries." And the Zwinks are not unusual. "That's what we do. In Oberammergau, the Passion Play is in our blood."
Oberammergau Passion Play 2010

The season runs from May 15 to October 3. Each of the 102 performances lasts five hours, from 2.30-5pm and 8-10.30pm, with a three-hour dinner break. Audiences are under cover, but mountain weather can be chilly; take blankets, even long johns.

With only 1,200 beds in the village, tickets are sold as part of a package.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Samuel Johnson and the Virtue of Capitalism

The great 18th century writer on commerce and human happiness

It was the ultimate gathering of statesmen, thinkers and artists, the likes of which aren't likely to be found in Davos or at any Renaissance Weekend. "The Club," as it was simply known, was founded in 1764 by the moralist and polymath Samuel Johnson, and included the likes of political philosopher Edmund Burke, painter Joshua Reynolds, naturalist Joseph Banks, historian Edward Gibbon and economist Adam Smith.

Over Monday night dinners at London's Turk's Head tavern, members would chew over everything from philosophy to rhetoric to art to questions of human character and nature. It's been said that the late 18th century was the last time in history a well-educated person could have a mastery of every great scholarly discipline. But it's also true that the greatest minds of the era believed that there was an essential unity of knowledge, and that the natural and humane sciences, or the moral and the political, could only be properly comprehended together.

We could use a club like that today, or at least we could attend more closely to what some of its members thought about the world they knew—and how they thought about it. That goes especially for Johnson, who is remembered mainly as the author of the first authoritative dictionary of the English language, but whose thoughts on human nature, morality and commerce are a timely antidote to the anticapitalist ethos that's become increasingly fashionable in the wake of the financial crisis.

Johnson believed that human happiness could be achieved through great acts of striving rather than in states of placid contentment. "Do not suffer life to stagnate," opines a character in "The History of Rasselas," his 1759 novel. "It will grow muddy for want of motion." The novel tells the story of a restless young prince of Abyssinia who, for lack of ordinary wants, escapes from an Eden-like existence in order to find some greater thing to reach for. Seeing the pyramids in Egypt—which, unlike the Great Wall of China, have no practical function beyond the extravagant glorification of a single man—the prince's tutor observes that "those who have already all that they can enjoy must enlarge their desires."

Man, in other words, is desirous, ambitious and perpetually dissatisfied with what he has, a fact endlessly lamented today by socialists, environmentalists and other sundry moralists who tell us we'd be better off saying "enough" and being happy with what we have. Johnson took a different view. Though he warned against the moral and emotional pitfalls of unbridled or misplaced ambition, he also knew it could be a force for good, and the lack of it an even greater force for ill.

In "A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland," an account of his travels with James Boswell through the Hebrides in 1773, Johnson vividly described the desolation of a feudal land, untouched by commercial exuberance. He was struck by the utter hopelessness in a country where money was largely unknown, and the lack of basic material improvements—the windows, he noticed, did not operate on hinges, but had to be held up by hand, making the houses unbearably stuffy.

He was even more struck by the contrast between places where markets thrived and those where they didn't. In Old Aberdeen, where "commerce was yet unstudied," Johnson found nothing but decay, whereas New Aberdeen, which "has all the bustle of prosperous trade," was beautiful, opulent, and promised to be "very lasting."

Johnson also understood that what Smith would later call the division of labor was instrumental for human happiness and progress. "The Adventurer 67," which he wrote in 1753 at the height of a commercial boom (and 23 years before Smith published "The Wealth of Nations"), delights in the sheer number of occupations available in a commercial capital like London. The insatiable demand for the most specialized goods and services means employment for anyone who wants to make a living: ". . . myriads [are] raised to dignity, by no other merit than . . . contributing to supply their neighbors with the means of sucking smoke through a tube of clay."

"[E]ach of us singly can do little for himself," he wrote insightfully, "and there is scarce any one amongst us . . . who does not enjoy the labor of a thousand artists." He also saw the market as the only mechanism by which the diversity of human desires could be satisfied: "In the endless variety of tastes and circumstances that diversify mankind, nothing is so superfluous, but that some one desires it . . ."

Johnson described what today we would call the capitalist system. Of course, the term "capitalism" was unknown in his day (though "capitalist" was; Johnson pithily defined it in his dictionary as "He who possesses a capital fund"). Also unknown to Johnson was the notion of "ideology." Rather, what he wrote was drawn from observations and reflections on human nature as he saw it—a nature that always aspired for more and better and (when properly instructed) nobler things. That nature is still with us, as is the economic system that Johnson observed is best adapted to it. Our latter-day moralists shouldn't lightly throw it away.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Fury as Queensland MP Dean Wells gets man off traffic charges

This sounds like a handy lawyer to know

A state Labor parliamentarian moonlighting as a barrister has angered police prosecutors by helping a constituent beat multiple traffic charges. Former attorney-general Dean Wells, now the Member for Murrumba, appeared in the Redcliffe Magistrate's Court on Tuesday to defend a 21-year-old constituent.

Nathan Kirby pleaded guilty to driving on a suspended licence but was "absolutely discharged" by Magistrate Alan Taylor after Mr Wells argued police should not have pursued such a "trivial matter".

The magistrate's ruling and Mr Wells' comments that the police prosecution of the matter amounted to an "abuse of process" have enraged police. Officers questioned why a member of government would want a repeat traffic offender to remain on the roads and avoid paying his fines.

Kirby lost his licence on May 24, 2009, as a result of an unpaid traffic fine for driving a defective vehicle. He had previously had his provisional licence suspended by the State Penalties Enforcement Registry after accumulating demerit points for speeding and other offences. When Kirby was stopped by police at 3am on July 10, he said he was not aware his licence had again been suspended by SPER. Police warned him not to drive and when he was intercepted 15 minutes later he was arrested.

Under Queensland law, anyone who is caught driving after a licence suspension faces an automatic disqualification for a minimum of one month.

Mr Wells said he agreed to represent Kirby free of charge because he was "a law-abiding citizen and a previous victim of crime". "The consequences of losing his licence for a month, which is what the legislation requires, means he would've lost one or both of his jobs," Mr Wells said. "Police don't have the discretion to let an unlicensed driver go but they do have the discretion not to prosecute."

Police told The Courier-Mail the magistrate's ruling was "blatantly ridiculous". "Millions of dollars are owed to SPER and now one of the Government's own members is helping offenders avoid paying fines," said an officer who did not want to be named.

But Mr Wells said it would have been unfair to penalise Kirby. "This kid is not a deliberate law breaker, he's just a kid who happened to be driving unbeknown to himself with a suspended licence," he said.

It is the third time Mr Wells has represented constituents, without charge, since being admitted as a barrister several years ago. He said the Integrity Commissioner had advised him his legal representation was not a conflict of interest, and was to be "commended, not criticised".,23739,26051142-3102,00.html

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Why are U.S. airlines so bad?

Leaders of the free world they may be. Land of the free, home of the brave, blah blah blah. But what they are not, is the home of decent airlines.

I love visitng the US. But what the hell's going on with their airlines? Why are they all so incredibly bad? Flying through the US is a nightmare, everyone knows that - but it's not just because of the massive security push, the fact you have to take your shoes off about four times before you even set foot in the airport, and hand over your mother's cousin's social security number before you can board the plane.

I can deal with all that. They don't want people hijacking their planes - fair enough. It's all the airline-related hassles I resent. It's not like there's no reliable model to go on for running a good airline. The Asian and Middle Eastern airlines are an absolute dream compared to anyone based in the US of A. Why don't they just copy them?

It starts from the moment you jump online to book your flights. If you want to fly, say, United, you'll find you can't book a domestic flight on their website unless you have an American-issued credit card. Otherwise, you'll have to go to a travel agent. It's as if they think no one living outside the States could possibly have the means to fly in a big aeroplane.

So that's United. You'll be fine booking domestic flights with American Airlines. US Air is okay too - you'll just have to make up a fake American phone number, since the website can't get its head around foreign phone numbers. Continental is fine. North-West and Delta will let you get up to the payment stage, then redirect you to its Australian site, where you'll have to start all over again.

There's a way around these problems though - go to one of the aggregator sites like, and book flights with any of the airlines on there. You find all the flights leave at ridiculous times like 11.48am, or 2.12pm, but, whatever.

With your flight booked, you then head to an American airport, most of which are complete chaos. By the time you find out where you're supposed to be, you'll realise the airlines have done away with most of the actual "people" working for them, and you have to check in at a machine. This is pretty straightforward with practice, but it's the added extras that get me. If you're flying domestic, the machine will tack travel insurance onto your ticket. No thanks, don't want that. Oh, and you've been upgraded to business for just $300 extra. Press here to cancel that option. Cancel. Checking a bag in? That'll cost you $20. Please swipe your credit card. What if I don't have a credit card? Could you have warned me about that in advance?

You almost find yourself waiting for the option to pay $50 more for a plane with wings.

Phew. Okay, all that's out of the way, and you can board your flight. Hoping for one of those nifty little TV screens on the seat in front of you? No chance. I took an hour-long flight from Washington to New York recently: no telly. Fine, it's only a short flight. Then I flew four hours from Chicago to Seattle: no telly. Bit annoying, but I could deal with it. Then I flew 14 hours from LA to Sydney: still no telly. In the words of a great American: you cannot be serious.

Ah well, might as well kick back and enjoy my meal. Except ... there's no meal. Food on US carriers used to be bad - I remember flying about 10 years ago and being presented with a mini pizza and a small packet of M&Ms. Now? If you're on an international flight you'll at least get something to eat.

Domestic travellers, though, often get nothing. Nada. Nilch. It might be a four- or five-hour flight, but the tastiest thing you'll get to munch on will be your arm rest. You might get a small snack. But you'll have to pay for a beer to wash it down. These aren't budget carriers, but they act like it.

I don't want to be totally negative though. I guess the one thing all my US flights have had in common is that they've all landed safely. Which, you'd have to agree, is a nice touch.

But things could be a lot better. Maybe once Obama's done sorting out the health care system and the war on drugs and the terrorists and the motoring industry, he could give his country's airlines a nudge...

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

New light on Easter Island red hats

BRITISH archaeologists believe they have solved the ancient mystery of how the giant stone statues on Easter Island acquired distinctive red hats. The researchers said the key to the mystery lies in their discovery of a road on the tiny Pacific island. The hats were built in a quarry hidden inside the crater of an ancient volcano and rolled by hand or on tree logs to the site of the statues, said the team from the University of Manchester and University College, London.

The archaeologists examined the way the hats, each weighing several tonnes and made of red scoria, a pumice-like volcanic rock, were moved by Polynesians between 500 and 750 years ago. They were placed on the heads of carved stone human figures - known as "moai" - standing on ceremonial platforms which encircle the island's coastline.

But the riddle of how they were raised and attached remains unsolved.

"We now know that the hats were rolled along the road made from a cement of compressed red scoria dust with a raised pavement along one side," Dr Colin Richards from the University of Manchester said. "It is likely that they were moved by hand, but tree logs could also have been used.'' A third of the crater had been quarried away by hat production, the team said, and more than 70 hats had been found both at the ceremonial platforms and in transit.

Dr Richards said there was evidence the quarry, known locally as Puna Pau, had previously produced statues before changing to hats. "Initially the Polynesians built the moai out of various types of local stone, including the Puna Pau scoria, but between 12,000 to 13,000 AD, Puna Pau switched from producing statues to hats," he said. "The change correlated with an increase in the overall size of the statues across the island.'',27574,26042728-13762,00.html

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies: 'We owe the Queen an awful lot'

As Sir Peter Maxwell Davies turns 75, the firebrand composer and Master of the Queen's Music talks about his mellowing attitudes towards the monarchy...

When composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies turns 75 on Tuesday, his thoughts won't just be on his birthday celebrations, or the two Proms being held that evening in his honour. At the back of his mind, he'll be thinking about what to give Her Majesty the Queen for Christmas.

"I write her a carol every year, for the Chapel Royal. But I haven't done this year's yet. I'll have to do that," says Sir Peter, making a mental note and chiding himself with a quick curse. "That's on the to-do list."

As Britain's most revered living composer, Sir Peter, who cut his musical teeth at the forefront of the classical avant garde in the 1950s and was knighted for his efforts in 1987, has been penning pieces for state occasions since becoming Master of the Queen's Music in 2004. He was, he says, "terribly surprised" to be asked to take up the royal post dating from the 17th century, the musical equivalent of Poet Laureate. "After all, I was the author of Eight Songs For a Mad King, and that king [George III] was a relation."

Like the Laureateship, the role lasts for ten years. Unlike the Laureateship, it has no fixed duties, but comes with a salary – an annual stipend of £15,000. So how did the musical firebrand, whose resolutely atonal works rarely bother the schedulers at Classic FM, ever come to be welcomed into the heart of the establishment? "I saw it as an opportunity to raise the profile of serious music. As she herself, the Queen, has said to me – now there's a bit of name dropping… – 'This is what you want to make of it, and it's up to you. Of course I'm not going to tell you what it should be.' And I thought that was very reasonable."

Armed with his musical mandate, Sir Peter – 'Max' to his friends – has set about gently stirring things up by being characteristically single-minded ever since. "I don't think I would write a piece about a royal occasion unless I thought it was really something which was worth celebrating," he says.

"The big event coming up, of course, is the diamond jubilee in 2012, so I think that I'll certainly do something for that." However, there'll be no such fanfare to announce, say, any Royal offspring graduating from university. Treading carefully, he says: "I don't think I will do anything to mark such occasions. I would much rather do something which, if you like, marks the permanence of the institution, rather than its transitory events."

Does Sir Peter, a musical and political radical who sees the Queen "once, twice or three times a year", even consider himself a big fan of the monarchy? "Not particularly," he says. "The monarchy, as such, doesn't really concern me this way or the other. But I do think that the Queen and various others do a very, very good job."

Nonplussed by the monarchy, he has nothing but admiration for the Queen herself. "I think we owe her an awful lot. She is no fool, and absolutely on the ball.

"I remember when I went to see her the first time after I accepted the position, I took her as a little present, a Hyperion recording of music I had written for Westminster Cathedral. There was nobody else there when we listened to it, just the Queen and myself, and she said: 'Why is it that the choir of the cathedral sounds so different? It's not at all like our choirs at St Paul's or the Abbey.' So I told her about the continental way of voice production for boys. And she said: 'Oh, that's very interesting, I had no idea. I'm very pleased to know that.' There was nobody there to prompt her, and she observed that herself. So you're dealing with someone whose first interest, plainly, is not music, but who is really aware. As she says, she and Philip are 'willing to learn'."

Sir Peter will conduct the Royal Philharmonic at the Proms on Tuesday, on a bill which – appropriately enough for the musician who has called the Orkneys his home for almost 40 years – includes Fingal's Cave, Mendelssohn's Scottish overture. Late-night Prommers will then get to hear the latest Maxwell Davies composition when his second "fiddle concerto" receives its UK premiere. A spray-soaked affair, it was conceived after Sir Peter started taking walks along the shore near his house on the remote, wind-whipped Orkney island of Sanday with a local folk violinist: "He would play me tunes as we walked to the sound of the sea."

From such austere beginnings, the concerto grew into a piece that speaks about the threat posed to Sanday's very existence. "We are told that it will disappear under the sea, probably within the next 300 years, because it's a very low-lying sandy island. My house is right on the shore, so we do feel a little bit exposed. I do hope I can survive my lifetime there. I don't think I would find anywhere, or any house, or any position, more beautiful. I've no intention of ever living anywhere else."

Sir Peter has lived on Sanday – population: 550 – for the best part of a decade with his partner, Colin, and their eight-year-old rescue dog, Judy. "It's absolutely quiet. You can be alone on the beaches and not see anybody, and I think it's a great pleasure and privilege just to take a dog for a walk and not see anybody for a couple of hours in the most beautiful scenery you can imagine."


Saturday, September 5, 2009

A doctor with a heart saves baby that others had given up

At just four months old, Maisey Fishwick was diagnosed with untreatable brain cancer and sent to a hospice to die. Doctors told heartbroken mother Emma all they could do was relieve the pain as she lived out her short life.

But just days before Maisey was expected to die, child cancer specialist Eddy Estlin saw a ray of hope for the child and sent her back to hospital for care. And now, after 11 hours of surgery and 15 months of chemotherapy, brave Maisey, now 21 months old, has been given the all clear.

Emma, 25, said: 'He had a look at her and said "She's a little fighter. I'm going to take her back to Pendlebury (children's hospital)". Suddenly, we had hope again.'

Single mum Emma's nightmare began last year. She took Maisey to the doctor after noticing the top of her skull was swollen. Meningitis was initially suspected, but tests ruled that out. It was only when relatives insisted on a scan that they discovered a large tumour growing on Maisey's brain stem, pushing it to one side.

Her family was told nothing could be done and the toddler was taken to Derian House Children's Hospice in Chorley, Lancashire. But then Maisey received a visit from Dr Estlin, consultant paediatric oncologist at Manchester Children's Hospital.

He said: 'It was a really difficult situation in the beginning. 'The low grade tumour was causing big problems and we thought she would rapidly deteriorate, with surgery risky and, ultimately, unable to help her. 'But when I visited Maisey at Derian House, she was looking a little bit better.

'The team took the decision to operate, and surgeon Ian Kamally completed a very long operation. 'Now, following chemotherapy, the scans show she has had an extensive tumour, but she is now recovering. 'While Maisey's future is not certain - we don't know if it will grow back - we're confident in our treatment.'

Emma, a legal secretary from Wigan, said: 'It has been really tough and she has been in and out of hospital with all sorts of infections and other problems. 'She was meant to have started physio a good while ago, but she was too weak. 'She was also meant to have had another two rounds of chemotherapy, but the doctors have decided that she's had about as much as she can take. 'It is a big relief that we are through that and the doctors say she will be very unlucky if it comes back.

'You get used to all the hospital stays and anxiety - and Maisey has proved it was all worthwhile.'

Dr Estlin said: 'Maisey has done really well, she's staged a quite astonishing comeback. 'There's a real pleasure and pride at seeing how well she's done. She is a fighter and has had great support from her family and the community. It's a magnificent comeback.'

Steam train reunites 'British Schindler' with Jews he saved from Nazis

Hauled by a newly built British steam engine, a specially chartered train arrived at Liverpool Street station in London yesterday to commemorate the rescue of almost 700 Czech Jewish children on the eve of the Second World War.

Tornado, the first mainline steam locomotive to be built in Britain for almost 50 years, had been chartered by Czech Railways to haul the final leg of a train from Prague, poignantly recreating the escape of 669 Jewish children in 1939. The famous “Kindertransport” was organised by Sir Nicholas Winton.

Sir Nicholas, who turned 100 in May, was there to greet some of the now elderly people he saved from certain death at the hands of the Nazis. “It’s wonderful to see you all after 70 years,” he told them. “Don’t leave it quite so long until we meet here again.”

A band played and hundreds of wellwishers crowded the platforms to greet the train.

Twenty-two of the children, accompanied by 150 others, left Prague on a steam train on Tuesday, following the same route they had taken in 1939 out of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. They arrived yesterday morning at Harwich and travelled the final leg to London to honour Sir Nicholas, known as the “British Schindler”.

In 1938 Nicholas Winton, a stockbroker of Jewish origin working in London, visited a friend in Prague and realised the danger of an imminent German invasion. He set about chartering special trains, and returned to London to raise money and find host families who would accept the children. Eight trains set off, travelling through Germany in 1939. But a ninth, with 250 children aboard, never left Prague, as it was due to depart on September 3, the day war broke out. The children were never seen again.

Sir Nicholas never spoke of his work until it was revealed by chance 50 years later by his wife, Greta, who found a briefcase with documents on the Kindertransport in their attic in 1988. Since then he has received many honours: he was awarded the freedom of the city of Prague, was decorated by President Havel, and Czech astronomers named a small planet after him. In 2002 he was knighted by the Queen.

In 1998 the Czech Ambassador to Britain sponsored a commemoration called “Thank you Britain” to honour those who helped to settle the children. A statue to him was unveiled at Prague station before the train left on Tuesday. Yesterday survivors spoke of their gratitude to Sir Nicholas and of the tragedies that befell their families.

Otto Deutsch, 81, who is originally from Vienna and now lives in Southend, said: “It happened so many years ago yet I remember it so vividly. I never saw my parents again or my sister. My parents were shot and what they did with my sister I really don’t want to know.”

Alexandra Greensted, 77, from Maidstone, said: “It’s a very emotional day for me. I can’t remember much about the actual train journey. All I can remember is being at the railway station crying my eyes out. I left my father and two older brothers behind.”

Tornado, the engine hauling the train into London, is an A1 Pacific that cost almost £3 million to build and was put into service on charter trains last year. Mark Allatt, the chairman of the trust that raised the money from volunteers, said that they were honoured to provide the motive power for this commemoration, dedicated to the Czech presidency of the EU, of the Kindertransport trains.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Mini love affair survives new models

I have very fond memories of my Mini K -- a version made for Australia with an 1100cc motor -- JR

SEX symbol, film star, industrial success story - the Mini occupies a special place in Britain's national consciousness.

As Lord Mandelson said yesterday: "British drivers have had a long love affair with the Mini and I'm sure that this will continue for years to come." Few people would argue with his words, prompted by news from BMW that two new models are to be built at the MINI plant in Oxford, west of London.

Of course, what he did not point out was that, like many of the great love affairs, it got off to a rocky start.

When the Mini was introduced in 1959, early sales were so disappointing that production might even have been halted. Somehow it caught on, though, and the car that was originally designed as a utility vehicle for the working classes became the runabout of choice for the smart set and an indelible symbol of the Swinging Sixties.

Who had a Mini? Who did not, more like. Peter Sellers had one, as did Princess Margaret, and the Beatles had one each (customised, of course). Jack Profumo used to drive around in a bright red one - unusual for a Government minister - and Christine Keeler claimed that she had sex with him in it, which was even more unusual.

When a Mini won the Monte Carlo Rally in 1964, its status as a motoring legend was assured and by the time the car appeared in The Italian Job, it had become a global superstar.

Now, 50 years later, our affair with the Mini is still going strong - although, as with any long-standing relationship, it is politic not to draw attention to the various changes that have taken place over the years, such as the new owner, the new design and that the name of one's true beloved is now written in capital letters.

But love is blind, especially if it means the best news for the British motor industry in years and the creation of up to 1000 jobs at MINI's Cowley plant, where 3700 workers are employed building three versions of the car. The two new models, one of them a coupe, will be unveiled at the Frankfurt motor show on September 15.

Even Alex Moulton - who designed the suspension of the original car half a century ago and who could be forgiven for regarding the BMW MINI with a certain coolness - welcomed the news. "I am delighted," he said, before going on to describe the current MINI as "well done and well executed ... in a German way".

What it does not have, however, is any of the technical innovation of the original, such as the transverse engine, the front-wheel drive and the rubber suspension, all designed to give maximum space inside. "I once drove a 1959 Mini to Brighton," said Christy Campbell, author of Mini: An Intimate Biography, "and it was absolutely wonderful ... incredibly simple and incredibly clever."

Although it was not a success at first, its fortunes changed when it was taken up by the likes of Anthony Armstrong-Jones, later Lord Snowdon. Soon everyone wanted one. "But it was not just pop stars who bought them, it was Tory ministers," Campbell said. "Ernest Marples (Minister of Transport) had a special one to carry his golf clubs. Princess Alexandra was pursued by the Daily Mail because they wanted to know what was inside her boot."

After production of the Mini classic ended, BMW brought out the MINI: bigger, sportier and absolutely nothing to do with the original. "They bought an English suit of clothes," said Campbell, "and re-manufactured it in a humourless, but efficient way."

Does it matter? "No," said Chas Hallett, editor of Autocar, the magazine that once named the original its Car of the Century. "The MINI has been an amazing sales success, even in the States, which is something the original never achieved. There is a sense of fun and verve about it."

Like the new versions of the Fiat 500 and the VW Beetle, nostalgia is an undoubted part of the appeal. "But nostalgia is never enough," Hallett said. "People would not buy it unless it was a thoroughly good product. And it is a good product.",25197,26025228-2703,00.html

A picture of a young Adolf Hitler apparently playing chess against Vladimir Lenin 100 years ago has come to light.

The image is said to have been created in Vienna by Hitler's art teacher, Emma Lowenstramm, and is signed on the reverse by the two dictators. Hitler was a jobbing artist in the city in 1909 and Lenin was in exile and the house where they allegedly played the game belonged to a prominent Jewish family.

In the run-up to the Second World War the Jewish family fled and gave many of their possessions, including the etching and chess set, to their housekeeper. Now their housekeeper's great-great grandson is selling the image and the chess set at auction. Both items have a pre-sale estimate of £40,000.

The unnamed vendor is confident the items are genuine after his father spent a lifetime attempting to prove their authenticity. He compiled a 300-page forensic document that included tests on the paper, the signatures and research on those involved. Experts, however, have questioned its authenticity especially the identification of Lenin who they say might have been confused with one of his associates.

When the etching was made, Hitler was 20 and Lenin was twice his age and the house was where politicos went to discuss things. The etching is thought to be one of five and shows Hitler - playing with the white pieces - sitting by a window, with Lenin opposite him in half shadow. It is titled "A Chess Game: Lenin with Hitler - Vienna 1909".

It raises tantalising questions about what the two men who helped shape the world in the 20th century might have spoken of. Lenin was already a highly influential Russian figure who in 1907 went into exile once more after the revolution was crushed by Tsarist authorities.

Richard Westwood-Brookes, who is selling the items, said: "This just sounds too good to be true, but the vendor's father spent a lifetime proving it. "He compiled a 300 page document and spent a great deal of money engaging experts to examine the etching. "The signatures in pencil on the reverse are said to have an 80 per cent chance of being genuine, and there is proof that Emma Lowenstramm did exist. "The circumstantial evidence is very good on top of the paper having been tested.

"Hitler was a painter in 1909 and his Jewish teacher Emma Lowenstramm was the person who made the etching. "There is some suggestion that when he came to power Hitler protected her and she died from natural causes in 1941. "At the time, Vienna was a hotbed of political intrigue and the house where this game took place belonged to a prominent Jewish family. "Lenin at the time was moving around Europe in exile and writing "Materialism and Empirio-criticism".

"His movements are hazy and it is known that he did play chess and later he certainly wore wigs as a disguise. "It is also known that Lenin was a German agent and the house was where people went to exchange political views.

"The chess set is clearly the same chess set as that in the etching. It is a box chess set that folds out and the pieces are identifiable - particularly the kings and bishops.

"To my knowledge there are five etchings of this image, but this has the signatures of both men and the artist. "The provenance is that it has come through the family of the housekeeper who was given it when the Jewish family fled in the late 1930s. "The family is based in Hanover and it is the great great grandson of the housekeeper who is selling it. "On all sorts of levels it is an extremely valuable artefact. Even as just an allegorical picture it shows the men playing chess possibly for the world."

Historian Helen Rappaport, who has just written a book called "Conspirator: Lenin in Exile", said the etching was probably a "glorious piece of fantasy". She said: "In 1909 Lenin was in France and there is no evidence that he was in Vienna. "In October he went to Liege in Belgium and in November he went to Brussels. He would have visited Vienna before and after that year. "He liked the place and went there because he travelled around Europe on trains, but he wouldn't have been there long enough to meet a young Hitler. "He was also as bald as a bat by 1894 with just hair on the sides of his head. "And when in exile he was not known as Lenin and instead used a number of aliases.

"The person believed to be Lenin in the etching may well have been one of his revolutionary or Bolshevik associates who was misidentified. "It may even have been an Austrian socialist with whom he associated in the Second International. "The Germans did fund the Bolsheviks and gave them millions of marks for the revolutionary effort, but Lenin was not a German sympathiser.

"Although this is totally spurious it is wonderful to bring these two great megalomaniacs together. "It makes sense retrospectively and the history of art is full of retrospective meetings between people."

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The "Glorious revolution" of 1688: When a dynamic commercial ideal won out over centralized power

Samuel Pufendorf, a 17th-century German historian, described the English people as "having been ­always inclined to rebellion and intestine commotion." But England's regime change in 1688—soon called "glorious"—was a revolution with a difference. Instead of overthrowing the existing order in violent upheaval, it put "government upon its ancient and proper basis, which the measures of a mad bigot had almost ­destroyed." The "mad bigot" was, in this case, James II, the Stuart king (and a Catholic) who was deposed in ­favor of William of Orange, a Protestant from the Dutch Republic. Edmund Burke famously contrasted England's balance of change and continuity in 1688 with the ­ferocity in France a century later.

In "1688: The First Modern Revolution," Steve Pincus challenges this received account to argue that the ­Glorious Revolution marked a much greater break with history than Burke realized—and proved to be an ­emblem of the West's future. James II, Mr. Pincus notes, sought to extend state power at the expense of Parliament and the privileges of local communities. James's adversaries preferred the dynamism of commerce; they believed that wealth sprang from the limitless striving of human endeavor rather than the finite availability of land. France under Louis XIV provided James with a pattern for absolutism; the Dutch Republic provided his opponents with a commercial ideal. The Glorious ­Revolution is often seen as a clash ­between ­"popery"—the term for authoritarian ­Catholicism—and ­ancient English liberties. But Mr. Pincus persuasively describes it as the collision of two ideas about the state in society. In a sense, he implies, we are all Dutchmen now.

In the decades before the Glorious Revolution, Mr. Pincus observes, Britain's economy had grown exponentially, thanks to ever more productive manufacturing and ever more ­expansive overseas trade. Cities grew, drawing workers away from the countryside. Britain's landed ­interests did not lose out: Profits attached them to the new economy in a way that was not true for elites on the Continent. By 1680, ­England had become the first consumer society. And it possessed a thriving public sphere that ­anticipated ­William Blackstone's later ­description of the English as a polite and commercial people.

Such was the world that James II inherited. Although a Catholic ruling a Protestant realm, he had broad ­support when he became king in 1685, and the Duke of Monmouth's attempt to overthrow him then won little support. Most Englishmen backed James, and little ­wonder. The civil war, not to mention Cromwell's ­authoritarian interregnum, was within living memory: An Englishman might well have thought that his country had more to lose from a regime of Protestant ­enthusiasts than from a Catholic king pledged to defend English liberties and even the Church of England. So what changed to bring about James's downfall?

James turned out to be a revolutionary, Mr. Pincus suggests, working to transform England's ­government into a centralized bureaucracy. With his standing army, his subservient judges and his efforts to control ­parliamentary elections, James extended state authority deep into English society. The idea was to ­establish ­England as a great power, beholden to state subsidies for its commercial wealth and ready to pursue yet more imperial conquest. Given such ambitions, Mr. Pincus says, James's willingness to promote religious toleration was a pretext for favoring Catholicism as a faith more conducive to royal power—and for exalting the king's authority by reducing the pope's. Even English Catholics found this idea troubling.

France served as James's model. As Mr. Pincus ­reminds us, prolonged war—and the financial burden of sustaining large armies—had created a crisis for ­Continental Europe in the decades before the Glorious Revolution: a Hobbesian war of all against all. Louis XIV solved the crisis by building a centralized, bureaucratic state and making France the strongest power in Europe. At the same time, he turned the French nobility into courtiers and crushed all rival centers of power. ­Government became the king's secret rather the public's trust.

What James II took as a model, though, his countrymen feared as a threat. Eventually a broad section of the English elite, and a good part of the English populace, repudiated James and his absolutism in favor of his daughter, Mary, and her husband, William. When ­William landed in England with a Dutch army, he faced little opposition, and James soon fled into exile. The revolution, if glorious, was not entirely bloodless, ­especially in Scotland and Ireland, where the Catholic Stuart claim was especially strong. But at least there was no clash of armies or civil war. A relatively peaceful ­transition secured English liberties and a ­facade of royal continuity—Mary was a Stuart, after all.

Unanimity quickly faded, inevitably, as Whigs pushed a reform program that included establishing the Bank of England and borrowing money from private sources for Continental war. Tories balked at such changes, ­believing them to favor metropolitan interests over the public good. Behind the contest over England's ­future—that is, between the French and Dutch ­models—lay a commitment to England's past that Mr. Pincus understates.

The next several decades would see a polarizing of parties within England, but a quarrel among competing interests, rather than rule by ­decree, is what the ­Glorious Revolution aimed to make possible. The English predilection for "intestine ­commotions" checked James II's plan to transform ­England absolutely while ­hastening the decentralized, commercial transformation already under way. John Locke noted that "people are not so easily got out of their old forms," preferring the imperfect system they know to a new one they don't. Rulers who ignore that lesson—as James II ­discovered—do so at their peril.

White Europeans 'only evolved 5,500 years ago after food habits changed'

People in England may have only developed pale skin within the last 5,500 years, according to new research. Scientists believe that a sudden change in the diet around that time from hunter-gathering to farming may have led to a dramatic change in skin tone to make up for a lack of vitamin D. Farmed food is lacking in vitamin D and while humans can produce it when exposed to the ultraviolet light in sunlight darker skin is far less efficient at it.

People with pale skin may be descended from Europeans who dramatically changed their diets after switching from hunter-gathering to farming. Scientists at the University of Oslo believe this change in diet may have led to our dark-skinned ancestors evolving paler skin to overcome this problem.

The link between skin colour and Vitamin D from sunlight has been suggested before. It had previously been believed that our ancestors’ skin had gradually lightened to generate more Vitamin D the further north they moved away from the equator to places where there was less sunlight. Now scientists believe that the change in their diet away from foods rich in Vitamin D also played a major factor in the skin lightening in colour. And the particularly pale skins of people in Scandinavia may have evolved to maximise the amount of Vitamin D that could be produced, the research suggests. [There is some very pale skin in Ireland too. I have inherited it myself]

If the theory is correct it would mean that until this period in history, the ancient inhabitants of Britain and Scandinavia - our ancestors - would have had a dark skin tone.

Johan Moan, of the university's Institute of Physics, said in a research paper: ‘In England, from 5,500-5,200 years ago the food changed rapidly away from fish as an important food source. This led to a rapid development of ... light skin.’ The research paper, written with Richard Setlow, a biophysicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York state, states : ‘Cold climates and high latitudes would speed up the need for skin lightening. ‘Agricultural food was an insufficient source of vitamin D, and solar radiation was too low to produce enough vitamin D in dark skin.’

Children with fair skins are able to get their daily dose of Vitamin D with just 10 to 20 minutes in the sun. But research has shown that sun-protective skin pigments in black children means that it takes up four times as long for the skin to produce enough of the vitamin. Milk and a few other foods such as fatty fish are fortified with vitamin D but most people get very little through their diets.

A lack of Vitamin D has been linked with cancers, bone problems, type 1 diabetes, and even multiple sclerosis. One recent study in the U.S found that nearly half of African American women of childbearing age may be deficient in vitamin D.